For Bill Lyon, it was just another night at the arena. He was sitting courtside in a seat behind the scorer’s table, hours before the 76ers tipped off. A giant in stature and status, Bill reclined in his seat watching players warm up, his long arms draped across the adjoining chairs talking with ushers, players and team executives alike. He treated everyone the same. Everyone was important.
My assignment, just a week into my employment at The Philadelphia Inquirer in February 2000, was to go meet Bill.
“Welcome, kid,” he said. “Know anybody here?” I did not. Not a soul. I was new to town, new to covering the NBA, new to working at a big, thriving, iconic newspaper.
“Come on,” he said, pulling himself out of his chair. “I’ll introduce you around.”
And Bill did. First team president Pat Croce. Then coach Larry Brown. Then general manager Billy King. Then superstar Allen Iverson. Bill knew everyone, and everyone knew Bill, and quickly, with his help, I knew everyone, too.
That was Bill. He loved people. He loved writing. He loved his craft. He loved his colleagues, young and old. And, more than anything, he loved his family — his wife Ethel, their sons Jim and John and their two grandsons Josh and Evan. “Let me tell you about Evan from heaven,” he’d constantly tell me. He knew exactly the amount of steps from his house to theirs.
Over the next five years, I had the great pleasure of sharing space with Bill. We’d often sit next to each other at games, or on planes, or at the bar late at night when our work was done. It could be intimidating watching a man type such poetic prose in mere seconds and then be humble yet satisfied with the result. Bill had an ego, as we all do, but he never made you feel inferior. He was better than everyone. We knew it. He knew it. But he never made you feel it.
Bill was a willing teacher. Tell stories, he’d say. Be fair, he’d say. Always show up after writing something scathing, even if it’s your day off, he’d say. Especially after writing something scathing. Show up. Be accountable. Apologize when you’re wrong, because there will be times when you are wrong.
What I will remember most about Bill is not his brilliance as a writer, although that was undeniable. He came up with phrases and analogies unlike any other. His throw-away lines were better than our best. It’s not the speed with which he worked, although he was so inexplicably fast, and proudly so. And it’s not that he could analyze a situation, a dynamic, a play, a moment with such clarity and civility.
No, what I will remember most is Bill’s humanity. He was a Midwestern gentleman. We used to fly home together from away games, be it Sixers or Eagles or Flyers, and we’d sit together. We both loved doing crossword puzzles. I’d invariably get stuck on word, and Bill would look over and gently give me the answer. He’d long finished his, because words came to him like thoughts, clear and always correct. He’d help me without my asking, just as he did the first night I met him.
We lost a legend on Sunday night when Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s took Bill Lyon from us at 81 years old. “Know anybody here?” Yes, I know the best.